Ray Suarez’s 1999 book, The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration, 1966-1999, identifies a persistent pattern in city after American city: the heyday of the old urban neighborhood, the decline and loss of that neighborhood, and the subsequent ghetto that took its place.

Suarez describes the tight-knit urban communities that many former residents now think of as “the old neighborhood”:

The year 1950 was the last full cry of urban America, at least on the surface. It was the year many of the cities visited in this book reached their historic peaks in population. Everybody was working, in folk memory, and in fact. Armies clad in overalls poured out of plants at quitting time or watched as the next shift filed in. Houses cost a couple of thousand bucks. . . . The mortgage was often less than a hundred a month. The teeming ethnic ghettos of the early century had given way to a more comfortable life, with religion and ethnicity, race and class still used as organizing principles for the neighborhood.

St. Louisan Charles Manelli (interviewed in Suarez’s book) paints a picture of life in those days:

You had a parochial school on one corner, and down the street was the public school. It was a neighborhood, and it was like that all over the city. And everybody knew everybody, whether you went to parochial or public school, it was just a big neighborhood; you could walk anyplace in the whole area and you knew everybody. You had places to go . . . drugstores, hamburger places, school grounds. It was unbelievable.

By the late 1960s, however, the “old neighborhood” was quickly disappearing, replaced by ghettos with high poverty and crime levels. Now, previous residents look back with nostalgia to the old neighborhood, unable to visit due to safety concerns. In many cases, the large number of abandoned and destroyed buildings has rendered the neighborhood virtually non-existent. There’s no there there. Suarez describes what has become of the old neighborhood:

When an accidental detour or a missed expressway exit brings us into contact with the world we left behind, we can still place all the blame firmly and squarely elsewhere. The shuttered factories and collapsing row houses, the vacant storefronts and rutted streets are regarded with the same awe reserved for the scenes of natural disasters. We look out on a world that somehow, in the American collective memory, destroyed itself.

But this world didn’t just destroy itself, Suarez asserts. Rather, a potent combination of institutional and societal pressures caused the decline of the old neighborhood – the rise of the automobile culture; the G.I. bill, which encouraged whites to purchase new homes in “greenfield” suburban developments; and real estate practices such as racial redlining and blockbusting.

But Suarez doesn’t stop with those larger forces – he also blames individual whites for their abandonment of the old neighborhood. “Blame” is not too strong a word to describe Suarez’s take on what happened. On page after page of The Old Neighborhood, you can feel Suarez’s anger not just at the institutional and societal forces that erased the old neighborhoods but also his deep frustration at the complicity of whites who fled those once-thriving communities. He writes,

I have spoken to hundreds of people who mourn the loss of a sense of place tied to block, school, and neighborhood church. When you talk to them further, you may also find that they were busily helping to create the new rootlessness during the years of urban change. Many conclude there was no other way for things to end up. I’ll insist until the day they’re tossing spadefuls of city soil on my casket that we gave up far too easily, driven by a range of forces in the society we did not recognize.

Whatever the cause of this decline, in cities like St. Louis that decline was rapid. Manelli explains,

It happened so fast, I mean, my gosh . . . overnight. It was like an exodus . . . zoom, everybody was gone! I’d say it was a five-year period, the whole city of St. Louis changed. And I think it was because of panic. The whole atmosphere of the city changed, and everybody just panicked, and left. Oh, I’d love to live there now, in the same atmosphere as it was, but back then it was just panic.

While I’m not sure Suarez’s frustration with the average white citizen is entirely warranted, I’m intrigued nevertheless by his exploration of what happened to the old neighborhood. I’d recommend reading The Old Neighborhood – but be forewarned that former residents of the old neighborhood aren’t always portrayed positively in the book. Suarez identifies “nostalgia,” “racial resentment,” a (selfish?) desire for upward mobility and safety as the qualities he’s found in the “ten million accomplices” to the crime of abandoning the inner cities. According to Suarez, former residents love to “tell the stories of that good, gone life” – but then don’t want to take any of the blame for the disappearance of that good life.

The cost, claims Suarez, has been high. This migration – “white flight and the hollowing out of the American city” – “has left deep, unacknowledged scars in the lives of millions of families,” says Suarez. “They were obeying the American siren call to mobility; they were only doing the best thing for their children; they were spending new money in search of space – but the scars were still there.” “Even good intentions,” he concludes, “can end up leaving scars.”

These scars affect both the whites who have moved to the suburbs and the racial minorities who now live in the “old neighborhood.” Living in subdivisions, people like Charles Manelli “yearn for the closeness, the coherence, that an old urban neighborhood gave their lives.” “We don’t have that neighborhood life here,” says Manelli. “It was just a wonderful place. These kids are missing so much now. I just can’t believe . . . I know it will never go back to the way it was, but that’s a shame because it was great.”

To read all of chapter one of The Old Neighborhood, visit this New York Times page.

Next week, I’ll highlight Suarez’s chapter on St. Louis and look more closely at the role race played in the transformation of Wellston and other “old neighborhoods” in St. Louis.

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